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The Country That Tried To Control Sex

Clair Wills’s memoir is a timely warning that sexual morality can be enforced only with violence.

Martin Parr / Magnum

When the cultural historian Clair Wills was in graduate school at Oxford in the late 1980s, she became pregnant by accident. She was 25 and single, with little money and no job. Still, she decided to keep the baby. “By then, getting pregnant and keeping the baby was almost a tradition in our family,” she writes in her memoir, Missing Persons. “My eldest sister had done it; so had one of my cousins. In fact, throughout the 1980s, these were the only kind of babies born in our family—‘illegitimate’ ones.”

What Wills didn’t know at the time, and what she would come to discover over the course of the next several decades, was just how vexed and long-standing this tradition was. Around the same time she fell pregnant, Wills learned that her maternal uncle Jackie had gotten a neighboring girl pregnant in the mid-1950s, when he was living on the family farm in West Ireland. Caving to social custom and familial pressure, Jackie abandoned his lover, Lily, and their unborn child and immigrated to England, losing his job, his country, and his family of origin in one fell swoop. Lily, meanwhile, was forced to enter the state’s network of mother-and-baby homes, where unmarried pregnant women lived and labored. Though some women resided at these institutions for several years, most stayed only until they gave birth, at which point many of their babies were put up for adoption—if they survived infancy. (Along with the infamous Magdalene Laundries, similar establishments in which women and girls, some of whom were pregnant, were consigned to unpaid labor, the mother-and-baby homes helped “render illegitimacy invisible.”)

At Bessborough, one of the largest homes, Lily gave birth to a daughter, Mary, the cousin Wills never knew. (Mary died by suicide in 1980 shortly after getting pregnant out of wedlock herself.) The irony, Wills eventually discovered, is that Jackie himself was the product of premarital sex: Her maternal grandmother, Molly, became pregnant with him in 1920 and only barely managed to render the child “legitimate” by marrying three months before giving birth. Proud of her hard-won “respectability,” Molly was horrified by the news of Lily’s pregnancy and did everything she could to cover it up, including by insisting that her eldest son leave the country forever. These scandals are among the family’s many secrets, known but never directly discussed.

In this brilliant and moving memoir, Wills works to expose such secrets. She does so by decoding the cryptic stories of violence and shame handed down from one generation to the next like an heirloom gun. She learns about Jackie, Lily, and Mary, but also about other missing or ill-fated relatives: a maternal aunt who died in early childhood; a maternal uncle who took over the farm after Jackie left and, according to Wills, was “buried alive” by it; and an illegitimate baby who might have been born to Molly or who might never have existed at all. Through archival research, conversations with family members, and reflections on her own childhood, Wills pieces together a more complete family portrait, one that includes “all those who were lost or discarded along the way.” The result is a riveting study of a “typical” 20th-century Irish family, one both destroyed and bound together by its secrets. And, in revealing the suffering that accompanies any effort to enforce sexual morality, it serves as a cautionary tale to those who want to uphold chastity and the nuclear family at all costs.

Wills has written several books about 20th-century Ireland, including one about sexual propriety in Irish poetry, but this is the first book to blend her personal experience and her scholarly expertise. Aware that “pregnancy and childbirth don’t happen outside history,” she shows how her pregnant relatives’ options were shaped by historical circumstances—and not always in the ways one might expect. In some respects, Molly, pregnant during the Irish War of Independence, actually had more options than Lily did, more than 30 years later: The mother-and-baby homes were not yet functioning, and it was more common then for a marriage to take place mere weeks before a child’s birth. By the time Lily became pregnant, the mother-and-baby homes, which offered only meager support for the women and children who lived there, and which seemed not to care if babies lived or died, had come to seem like the best option: a way for families to hide away pregnant daughters and hopefully get ahead of gossip.

Throughout the book, Wills demonstrates that supposedly traditional practices—forgoing sex until marriage, for instance—are usually historically contingent and far from universal. As she writes, it was only by the early 20th century that the Catholic Church had “consolidated its campaign to control sexual habits, in the name of Irish purity.” (Prior to the 1890s, there simply weren’t enough priests or churches to serve the country’s population.) Priests started to sermonize against sex outside of marriage or for pleasure, and 90 percent of Irish citizens were in the pews listening. The result was a shift in the cultural understanding of sexual morality: Wills writes that by 1920, when Molly was pregnant, “sexual lapses were not accepted or understood with anything like the same spirit as fifty years ago.” Questions of sexual legitimacy that had once been more private became a matter of public and moral concern.

But even as Wills understands how Lily and others like her—some 56,000 women in all from 1922 to 1998—were sent to live in the homes, she can’t quite accept it. “Why did people—why did we—countenance all these missing persons?” she asks. How could families and communities enact such violence on people they knew and loved? How could a woman like Molly, who would have known in her bones the fear that comes with being pregnant and unmarried in a small, socially repressive country, reject her son’s lover and unborn child, and thereby inflict that terror on someone else?

This is a moral question, but it’s also a methodological one. Archival records can’t fully account for human motivation; a death certificate doesn’t tell you why a vulnerable child was allowed to die. (From the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, Wills reports, 25 percent of babies born at Bessborough died, many from malnutrition.) Like scholars and writers before her, Wills finds that she must abandon the official record and consult less reliable but perhaps more revealing sources: her family members and her own memories. Her conversations with her mother are fascinating, both for what they disclose and for what they refuse to name. Wills doesn’t tell her much about the book she’s writing; in return, her mother offers tantalizing tidbits of family lore, “gingerbread crumbs” for Wills to follow. Wills senses that her mother wants the family’s story told but doesn’t want to take responsibility for the telling. “It’s as though I’ve been employed as a ghostwriter,” she writes. “I’m compelled to tell a story on behalf of ghosts, that even the ghosts don’t understand.”

Despite Wills’s strenuous efforts, her absent family members remain mysterious and unknowable. As it progresses, Missing Persons becomes less an effort to recover those missing relatives and more an inquiry into the mechanisms of disappearance, the ways that communities conspire to erase certain people from public life and collective memory. At mid-century, the Irish were not just “the best Catholics in the world” but also the best secret keepers: They knew how to lie, how to say nothing, and how to say something while seeming to say nothing at all. “A whole society learnt not to look, or not to look too closely,” Wills writes. She also insists upon the agency of those who “dismembered” the past, blaming everyone from the nuns who ran the mother-and-baby homes to the family members who refused to acknowledge Lily and Mary: “There is an active element to the refusal, or inability, to remember or to know.”

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Ultimately, Wills finds that although she can understand why her relatives acted as they did, she can’t quite forgive them. Perhaps this is fine: Historians, she writes, are not “in the business of dispensing forgiveness.” But what makes this book so compelling is Wills’s ability to be at once a historian and a human, to provide a valuable record of common social practices in 20th-century Ireland without ever becoming inured to the pain they caused. Each time Wills asks, with seemingly undimmed outrage, how people she loves, and who loved her in turn, could have acted so callously, she reminds us about the many ways that state and social repression can warp family life.

It’s a timely warning. Early in the book, Wills muses about the “chasm” between her own generation, with its happily unwed mothers, and the generations that preceded her. “Only a few decades ago it apparently made sense—as a parent, or a sibling, or a lover—to allow your daughter, or your sister, or the mother of your child to be effectively incarcerated,” she writes. “To us, now, it seems pretty much unthinkable.” Perhaps it does to those living in contemporary Ireland or in the U.K., where Wills lives. But for those of us living in the post-Dobbs U.S., such practices might seem less far-fetched. The ways that states across the country are denying bodily autonomy differ from the ways 20th-century Ireland did, and yet, all too frequently here, someone’s parent, sibling, or lover is deprived of life-saving or life-sustaining medical care, or forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. There are news stories about women who have faced criminal charges for miscarrying, or have been blocked from terminating a dangerous pregnancy. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the accessibility of mifepristone, a drug used to induce abortion that has been deemed safe by the FDA for more than 20 years. This week in Arizona, the state supreme court granted permission to move forward with the implementation of a law from 1864 that bans nearly all abortions.

Some on the political right might believe that with more state oversight of sexual practices and without access to abortion care, people will become more chaste and family-minded. But Wills’s book gives the lie to this idea. She shows that sexual morality can be enforced only through appalling acts of violence, which harm the perpetrators as well as the victims. “Irish people were not more sexually continent than any other people,” she writes; they were just “better at covering it up.” In trying to deny sex, Wills’s relatives merely compounded their own suffering. The pain they experienced was so deep, and so damaging, that the only thing they could do was look away.

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Maggie Doherty is the author of The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s.

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